The farmer next door
On a standard surburban block in Melbourne, Simeon Hanscamp is growing enough food to provide his local community with vegie boxes—and himself with an income. Anna Cumming visited him to find out what it takes to be a successful backyard farmer.
This article was first published in Issue 144 (July-Sept 2018) of Renew magazine.
Backyard fruit and vegie gardening is enduringly popular in Australia; one 2014 study found that 52% of Australian households reported growing at least some of their own food at home. Most of us—especially those who live in urban areas—stick to a few herbs and some tomatoes, or at most a handful of fruit trees and a productive vegie patch. But with a bit of determination and a suitable site, the potential is there to scale food production up to ‘backyard farming’.
One young entrepreneur in Melbourne has done just that. Both front and back yards of the rental house Simeon Hanscamp shares with two housemates in West Heidelberg, 10 kilometres north-east of the city centre, are laid out in neat, regular-sized garden beds, in which he grows greens and other vegetables. “I have about 220 square metres of growing space, and it produces $200 to $400 worth of food per week, depending on the season,” says Simeon. He sells it to neighbours via a ‘farm gate’ box at the front of the property, and through a vegie box scheme: his subscribers—15 to 20 local families—either collect their weekly boxes from the house, or pay a little extra for bike delivery. Recently, he’s also started attending the weekly farmers’ market at Melbourne University.
Getting started as a backyard farmer
Simeon’s backyard farm is the result of careful research and planning. He got the gardening ‘bug’ when he was involved in starting up a compost heap during his gap year; a few years later he spent time working at Transition Farm, a market garden on the Mornington Peninsula. “It was the best food I ever ate,” he remembers, “and I developed more of an interest in soil biology and so on.”
He also discovered ‘community supported agriculture’ (CSA). “Transition Farm’s CSA program means that around 100 families commit up front to buying weekly food boxes. The farm has a bit more financial security that way and planning production is easier. Typically recipients are also more involved in the story of where their food comes from.”
Inspired to become a farmer, Simeon spent three and a half years researching and learning, and developing his own business idea. “I wanted to be near family and also my partner’s city workplace, so the big question for me was how do I juggle proximity to the city with farming? The answer was urban farming.”
Farming on rented land
Simeon has based his enterprise on the methods of Canadian farmer Curtis Stone, author of The Urban Farmer: Growing food for profit on leased and borrowed land [see box]. “A lot of would-be growers think they need to have their own land, but it’s not true,” he says. “You don’t need to buy land to be a farmer.”
He spent time looking for a suitable rental property, scouring online mapping sites for larger blocks that would afford at least 150 m2 of growing space. “I needed a flat site with good sun access, and importantly, no soil contamination,” he says, “plus an undercover area for tools and for washing and packing produce.”
Of course, the final crucial element was a supportive landlord, as he needed permission to dig up the lawns for garden beds. Along with the West Heidelberg block, for which he and his housemates have a standard tenancy agreement, Simeon is setting up two more farming sites, one in the backyard of a family member’s rented house (with a similarly encouraging landlord) and one on a vacant block in a neighbouring suburb. For both of these sites—totaling an extra 580 m2 of growing space—Simeon pays ‘rent’ in the form of fresh produce. He says owners of land are often enthusiastic about seeing it used for productive purposes. “I also plan to explore with the local council what scope there is for reducing the rates on sites like mine that are used for primary production, as an extra incentive for landlords to get behind urban agriculture.”
He admits that there is an issue of security of tenure when land is leased. This has led him to stick to infrastructure that’s temporary (such as his plastic sheet greenhouse) or moveable (such as his produce wash tables and drying racks), so that he could “move in a week and set up in a new site” if necessary. On the plus side, he’s not servicing a large mortgage for land purchase.
Refining the system
Simeon got his farm started in earnest a year ago, and has been refining his crop selection and systems. He grows herbs, turnips, carrot, beetroot, spring onion, cucumber, tomatoes, zucchini and a wide variety of greens, concentrating on crops that are high value, quick to grow and with a good yield. Standardised garden beds—75 cm wide and 7.5 m long (and Simeon uses half-length beds where space is limited, and double-length where space permits)—help with record keeping, which is vital for learning and ensuring a profit. He says the size also makes the day’s workflow easier: “You do a task in one bed and then move on to a different task in another. It’s important to think about what works ergonomically for your body if you want to be doing this for thirty years!”
Simeon’s system follows organic principles and weed strategies, with biological organic compost inputs and no chemical sprays. “Compost is really important, and not practical to make on a large enough scale myself, so I get it from a local nursery supplier,” he says. “I add around 60 litres per bed at crop changeover.” He also uses pelletised organic fertiliser, and a combination of rainmakers, micro sprinklers and moveable drip lines for watering.
He says pests haven’t been a big problem, and that providing plants with the nutrition, airflow and water they need ensures they’re robust to help resist pests. “I also plant for abundance, planning to produce 25% more than I need so that the odd bitten leaf doesn’t matter. And I trade vegies for pest management advice with a local entomologist.”
One area that’s a particular concern for Simeon is weeding. “Farmers can spend a lot of time weeding, and my time is my most valuable commodity, so weed control and mitigation is really important.” He uses a combination of methods including regular hoeing while weeds are small; planting transplanted crops into weed mat with holes cut in it; and ‘stale seed bedding’ for direct seeded crops. This involves waiting for the weeds to germinate, then smothering them with black fabric or using his gas-powered ‘flame weeder’ to wilt the weeds and provide a clean bed for the crop.
Sized for market gardens, the flame weeder is just one of the specialised tools Simeon is collecting as funds allow—all of them just the right width for his garden beds. His favourite is his ‘tilther’, a small-scale cultivator powered by the motor in a battery drill: it tills just the top inch or so of soil, mixing compost and fertiliser into the direct seeding zone without disturbing the deeper soil. Other tools include a precision seeder and a broad fork for soil aeration, and next on his list is a drill-powered greens harvester to speed up that job.
What’s the payoff?
Having got off the ground with a $15,000 startup loan and nine months of a Newstart-equivalent wage via the government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS), Simeon considers his business “still in startup mode, but I’m not going backwards”. He plans to build it up to the point where it provides him with a living wage, and possibly create a local job or two.
Beyond the financial rewards though, he takes satisfaction in growing food in a way that’s transitioning to a different economy, one that’s local and includes trade and barter. He currently swaps produce for bread, goat milk and bike repairs. “There are way more benefits to being part of a local economy than I can tangibly count,” he says. “How do you quantify being known and having a place in your community?
“This is my full-time job. To derive an income from food should be possible, and to do it in the suburbs means that the consumer gets to meet the farmer, which lets people engage with where their food comes from. I love seeing parents bringing their kids to buy food from my farm gate—it’s an important part of village learning.”